Setting The Civil Rights Movement
The 1960s saw a significant turn as the Civil Rights Movement entered its second decade. Despite the right to vote technically applied to all Americans, many states across the United States blocked Black Americans through systematic means (i.e. poll taxes, voter literacy tests, fraud, and intimidation). A string of protests and violent attacks became the norm as tensions were rapidly reaching its peak. A sense that the same spaces couldn’t be occupied by Black and White people. Art so often serves as a reflection of the societal times, the state of the music industry was no less affected.
When we look at the music industry in the 1960s, the presence of Motown Records was the mark of an era that shifted ideas of pop culture that the rock and roll genre had been dominating for years.
The predominantly Black roster including acts such as Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Isley Brothers, and Tammi Terrell brought soul and R&B music into the fold of mainstream music. As the genre grew, a few emerging White artists were gaining traction in the uncharted territory eventually deemed blue-eyed soul.
The Rising Appeal of R&B
You may not be familiar with the term ‘blue-eyed soul’ so far removed from its roots. Originally coined in the 1960s, blue-eyed soul was attached to any white artists that developed their work in similar tones to the Black soul artists of Motown and Stax Records. By this time in the 1960s, Black artists were carving out spaces as dedicated radio stations maintained their own cultural real estate.
As with any cultural shift, assumptions about who owned and occupied soul music was forced to be addressed. It lived for many years under the guise of only being generated from Black artists. There may have been a few White artists that performed some covers every so often but wasn’t as common to build their catalog and image around the genre.
“Atlantic [Records] was pretty much an all-black, R&B label…unfortunately Atlantic forgot to mention that we were white. When we showed up to do interviews, they were stunned. They’d still do the interview, but when we left, they’d quit playing the record…they were just staying true to their formats.”
— Bill Medley (of The Righteous Brothers)
For the Righteous Brothers, it was Georgie Wods, a DJ in Philidelphia, that introduced the duo as “blue-eyed soul brothers”. It became a widespread code to audiences as some spaces began to integrate.
As the structure and content of their work shifted, some stations tried to steer audiences from thinking that the racial issues of the time were influencing their business decisions.
“Not so much because of any civil rights movements as the drive for audience…you can say we’re aiming for the people. We want numbers. I wouldn’t give a hoot what they are. We’re going to get an audience with good radio.”
— J.I Whittington, Operations Manager of WAKE
Whether those were genuine statements can be tossed up to debate, but the reality was that the specialized stations exclusively hosting rock, opera, or top 40 recognized that to maintain their presence required them to adapt and delve into unfamiliar genres to grow their audiences. R&B had the potential to live beyond the ethnic focus and have a mainstream appeal.
Ev’rything’s Coming Up Dusty
Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien was born in April of 1939 to parents Catherine and Gerard O’Brien with her older brother Dionysius. Growing up in Buckinghamshire, her family held a significant influence on her musical intake, exploring jazz, Brazilian samba, and pop prior to her own career start. Responding to an advertisement in the British publication The Stage, Mary joined the Lana Sisters. It was here that Mary was able to hone technical music skills and techniques. The pop group recorded music, played live concerts, and made some TV appearances. While her time with the group was short-lived, Mary was able to take these experiences as a performer and transitioned to a new group.
Mary changed her name to Dusty (reminiscent of her days playing football in the streets with the neighbourhood kids) and joined her brother (now under the stage name Tom Springfield), and Reshad Feild to form The Springfields. The group proved to fit well into the mold of the time.
Travelling to the U.S., the trio was influenced by the sounds of the region and in part showed them the state of r&b and pop music. The Springfields had a somewhat successful run, Dusty felt limited having been exposed to the sounds of The Shirelles and The Exciters. It was within those circumstances that the groups had run its course and disbanded in 1963. This gave Dusty the leverage to fully pursue a solo career that she had been working towards for years. Releasing her debut, A Girl Called Dusty, the album mainly consisted of cover songs but displayed Dusty musical interests and vocal range.
In 1968, Dusty In Memphis, Springfield’s career-defining album (produced by Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin, and Tom Dowd) served as “her masterpiece, a perfect marriage of pop and soul stunning in its emotional complexity and earthy beauty.” and produced her most recognizable hit “Son of a Preacher Man.”
The album itself wasn’t a commercial success, which may have contributed to the decline in Dusty’s rapid popularity.
“most of the songs … have a great deal of depth while presenting extremely direct and simple statements about love … Dusty sings around her material, creating music that’s evocative rather than overwhelming … Dusty is not searching — she just shows up, and she, and we, are better for it.”
— Greil Marcus
By the mid-1970s, Dusty career took a pause while she worked through substance abuse, alcoholism, and the growing fear of being scrutinized by the media towards her sexual orientation. Because there were never any reports of Dusty being in a heterosexual relationship up that point, her personal life was viewed under a different lens than her counterparts. The 1960s and 1970s were a fearful time for LGBTQ2IA+ artists that being out would bring unwanted attention and scope to their personal lives and anyone they wanted to be involved with.
“Many other people say I’m bent, and I’ve heard it so many times that I’ve almost learned to accept it … I know I’m perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.”
— Dusty Springfield
A Very Fine Love
Through Springfield’s personal struggles, she had taken a smaller role as a session singer in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Attempts to secure her past popularity had failed until she accepted an offer to collaborate with the Pet Shop Boys on their 1987 single “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”. This proved to have been the boost that she needed as she developed a number of releases in the subsequent years. While working on her 15th album, A Very Fine Love, Dusty was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after months of medical procedures and therapies, it was thought to be in remission. Unfortunately by the end of 1996, the disease had returned, and on March 2, 1999, Springfield died at the age of 59.
It Begins Again
Some saw blue-eyed soul as the sub-genre as further means to integrate Black and White communities. If it accomplished its goal is still a discussion today as cultural appropriation in the music industry remains well-above the surface.
It’s difficult to tie specific acts to Dusty Springfield, but this doesn’t mean that her influence is lost among her contemporary counterparts. One can recognize acts like Duffy, Anna Wise, and Amy Winehouse that bring similar aesthetic or image in some ways, but can still remain distinct in her own right. And maybe that’s where influence begets mimicking. One can detect remnants from more contemporary artists like Duffy, Anna Wise, and Amy Winehouse, without pointing any out as an industry copy. Dusty held onto a soulful range able to graft onto other genres organically. That her supreme voice still resonates with such commanding presence today is a testament to her durable and prevailing legacy.